Alt-Health: The 2018 Flu Epidemic

With the sheer number of other horrifying diseases plaguing mankind, most of us have come to think of the flu as just another inconvenience – a few days off from work, a box or two of Kleenex, and some over-the-counter remedies from the drugstore. We’ve forgotten the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million, more people than were killed in World War I. In fact, more people died of influenza in a single year than during the entire Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351.

Not all strains of influenza are created equal, and one of this year’s strains, H3N2, has proven to be particularly virulent. When I began researching this column in the week of January 22, 30 otherwise healthy children had already died this season nationwide. By the time January 26 rolled around, the number had climbed to 37. Sadly, there is a common theme among the most severe cases: Most of them did not get the flu shot. According to Dr. Tina Tan, infectious disease specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, “around 80% of the influenza deaths that occur in pediatric patients occur in those who are not vaccinated.”

So, why don’t people get vaccinated and why do they refuse to vaccinate their children? Many have been frightened by stories that aluminum and preservatives in vaccines could potentially cause problems ranging from autism to early onset Alzheimer’s, yet there is no clear causative evidence linking vaccines to either autism or Alzheimer’s. However, this is a fact: The flu DOES kill even the healthiest of children and adults.

How can this happen? There are several factors at play. First, there’s the actual virus. It can cause pneumonia or attack other organs in the body – encephalitis occurs when the virus attacks the brain and myocarditis results when it attacks the heart. Either of these conditions can be fatal. Then, there’s the risk of secondary infections, such as bacterial pneumonia. Pre-existing conditions or chronic illness such as asthma, congenital heart conditions or diabetes can make people especially prone to complications. And, although it is rare, the flu can sometimes cause the immune system to go into overdrive. When it does, sepsis can set in and lead to a cytokine storm – a potentially fatal immune reaction.

What can you do to protect yourself? GET A FLU SHOT. It’s best to get vaccinated before the season starts, because it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop. Getting vaccinated later, however, is better protection than none. If you’ve been putting it off, act now. What about possible side effects? Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if you have a condition that puts you at risk. For healthy individuals, side effects are usually mild and short-lived, and these reactions are much rarer, and milder, than the effects of the flu. Children 6 months and younger are too young to get a flu shot, so it’s important that their caregivers be vaccinated in order to protect them.

This year’s flu shot addresses 4 strains of influenza: two “A” and two “B” viruses. How effective is it? There was an update just tonight on the news (2/1). Although vaccinations originally claimed to offer about 60% protection against both B strains, and about 30% protection against H3N2, the predominant virus making people sick this year, Canadian researchers now say that the vaccine is only 17% effective against H3N2 strains, even less for at-risk individuals. So, why get vaccinated at all? Because the vaccine still helps to prevent deaths from the flu – even if you do become ill after being vaccinated, the case you get is much milder. This year, the CDC advises that you not use the nasal spray flu vaccine (LAIV). Only injectable flu shots are recommended.

What if you don’t want to get vaccinated? Then take extra care to avoid coming in contact with the virus. Here are some tips from the CDC:

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people. If you get sick, stay away from others to keep from infecting them.
  • If you are sick with flu symptoms, the CDC recommends that you confine yourself at home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, unless you need medical care or other necessities. Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

Those most at risk are children, baby boomers age 50-64 and the elderly. Seniors are also 6 times more likely to have a heart attack within a week of having the flu.

As of publication, there have been 11 flu-related deaths this season in Rhode Island (all but one older than 65).

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